Venice’s Vogalonga

The first boat to appear at the Dogana on the Grand Canal after the 30 km Vogalonga rally round the lagoon and canals of Venice was a coxed eight. It was another 40 minutes before the arrival of the first of the traditional Venetian boats, the ones everyone really wants to see.

All the boats finished further up, beyond the Rialto, and they then paraded down to the official pontoon at the Dogana, which is at the entrance to the Canal.

A coxed eight was the first to arrive

There they received their awards for participating in the lagoon marathon, which is open to any boat as long as it can be rowed or paddled. It took place on the Sunday before the Transadriatica.

A big international occasion has now evolved from what began in 1974 as a local event for Venetian rowers protesting against the damage motor boats and their wash were causing to the city. Since those days there has been a great revival of interest in Venice in traditional rowing craft, stimulating the creation of many clubs and training programmes.

First traditional Venetian boat to arrive, 40 minutes later

The Vogalonga itself, which is non-competitive, has changed its character over the years. Indeed, we heard that there was some resentment among local rowers at the way it has evolved, with boats appearing from all over the world, many of them starkly different from the traditional craft of the lagoon. There were reportedly 1,700 boats with 7,000 rowers this year.

One of the biggest competitors.
The Dogana (customs house) behind the official Vogalonga pontoon

There were dragon boats, rowing eights, fours, pairs and single skiffs and a variety of kayaks, including an exceptionally long one with four paddlers which was one of the first back, and a number of inflatable kayaks that were hauled out by their owners and packed into bags.

A great display of assorted craft passed by before we saw the first of the traditional Venetian boats with their forward-facing rowers, working gondolier-style.

Competition skiffs and kayaks can be seen anywhere in the world, but Venetian craft in their many forms are unique. The gondola is the most famous but there is a variety of other types, of which the sandolo is the commonest.

Packing an inflatable kayak

Some of the eights and other fast boats were from Venice, but many others were from elsewhere, including Britain, and the sheer number made it hard to keep track of all the national flags as they passed by.

The British coxed four in this picture was flying a Queen’s Jubilee flag. It was Jubilee weekend.

You can certainly see the advantage of facing ahead in the crowded waterways of Venice. While eights and most fours have coxes who look forward to steer, the uncoxed pairs and single skiffs must find it hard to avoid collisions at the speed they go.

The 2022 Vogalonga poster

June – the Transadriatica

It was great to be back as crew in the Transadriatica this year, after two years suspension because of Covid.

The race is actually a double one, just under 60 miles out from Venice to Novigrad in Croatia, and back again after a day’s relaxation in the delightful little seaside resort  – how can you beat that for a civilised way to compete?

Setting off for the start from DVV

Novigrad is in Istria, close to some excellent vineyards producing wine from the Malvasia grape. There is a strong Italian influence on the food and the architecture, reflected in the town’s other name of Cittanova. That goes back to the days before the peninsula of Istria was taken from Italy and handed to Yugoslavia after the second world war.

The Transadriatica is organised by Diporto Velico Veneziano, a local club with its own marina near the south-east tip of the island, not far from the Giardini, which is one of the venues for the Venice Biennale. The clubhouse is tucked away immediately behind the football stadium.

Skipper Martin

We were competing in Martin’s 26 foot sloop Spiuma, which is more than 50 years old but has been thoroughly refitted and includes a lagoon-friendly electric motor with a range of about 20 miles. That means power has to be used sparingly in the open sea, but one great advantage is that it motors in civilised near silence, compared with the intrusive noise a diesel engine or an outboard makes in a small yacht.

After a reception and race briefing, we were waved off from the club to the starting line by our spouses, Chris and Monica. The start was at 8.40 pm, just outside the northern entrance to the lagoon.

We had a comfortable breeze for several hours as we sailed, much of the time on a close reach, 33 miles up the Italian coast towards a buoy called Mambo 2, which is the single turning mark in the race.

The course from Venice to Novigrad in Croatia

The good winds did not last even as far as Mambo 2, and not long after we had turned south-east for Novigrad they began to die away to the gentlest of zephyrs, sometimes not enough to fill the light-wind gennaker.

Martin, Will and Peter – one of the slow, near calm stretches

It was one of those days when you see long alternating streaks of wind ripples and calm on the water. The best tactic is to sail slowly across the calm streak and then turn down the line of the wind ripples to stay within them as long as possible.

Like a number of other boats we eventually decided to retire in the near calm conditions, in our case only 8 miles short of Novigrad, when it became clear that we had no hope of finding a breeze or getting to the finishing line at the harbour entrance by the cut-off time of 15.00 on the Friday. There was a forecast of 20 knot winds for early afternoon, but they arrived much too late to help us, hours later than predicted. Martin was pleased that the 8 miles consumed only 40% of the energy stored in the battery pack  

After entry formalities at the port office, we took Spiuma to the marina for the night, which was essential for recharging the batteries. There we went to a reception organised by one of the big prosecco brands, which sponsored the race.

Prize for smallest boat

Despite being among the retirees, Martin was presented, to loud cheers and clapping from club members, with the award for the smallest boat to arrive. The prize was a giant bottle of one of the good local red wines.

Martin and I slept aboard, but my son Will, the third crew member, stayed with his Italian family – Faye, daughter Indigo and other grandfather Cino. By great good fortune they had been planning a holiday break in the town, which has long been a favourite of Cino’s. They chose an excellent restaurant for the evening, which turned out to be run by a woman who could still speak the old Venetian Istrian dialect of the area, which she had learnt from her mother.

Ahead of another evening start on the Saturday, the day was spent relaxing, a good part of it swimming and paddling, with lunch at a shore-side restaurant under pine trees. Faye, Indigo and Cino waved from the pierhead as we jostled for a good position on the starting line at 8.30pm in a light north-northeasterly breeze.

Cino, Faye and Indigo see us off from Novigrad marina
The lighthouse – one end of the start line
Faye, Indigo, Cino watch from the lighthouse
Indigo watches us preparing to hoist sails near the start line

The race back had its near-calm periods, but overall there was more wind than on the outward leg. The north-northeasterly began to veer as we approached Mambo 2, so from a close reach we went into a beam and eventually a broad reach, and could fly the gennaker. Even better, the wind went on veering as we rounded the buoy.

Starting towards the sunset

That allowed us to turn down the coast towards Venice without gybing, which is always a bit of a performance with a large cruising chute or gennaker.

Mambo 2 at dawn on the way back

We did eventually have to gybe. On Spiuma that means letting go a sheet so the gennaker can fly out like a giant flag ahead of the boat. It can then be manoeuvred round in front of the forestay using the other sheet, and pulled in on the other side. The helm adjusts course to make the wind help the manoeuvre.

The gennaker could be goosewinged on a dead run, but only when the sea was flat enough to avoid rolling. It was better used as a reaching sail.

The breeze persisted for a few miles along the coast, then began to die away, so we were soon down to less than 2 knots and beginning to wonder whether we would have to retire again. We were saved by the sea breeze we could see developing inshore.

Passing the DVV committee boat at the finishing line

About 10 miles from Venice we doused the gennaker and headed much closer in to the beach under genoa and main. We were soon galloping along close-hauled  at 5 knots or more as the sea breeze strengthened. We passed the committee boat at the finishing line at 14.10, with 50 minutes to spare. Then we motor-sailed up the entrance channel and into the lagoon before putting away the sails a few hundred metres from Martin’s club.

We will know how we did when the handicap results are published. But it was a splendid weekend, ashore and afloat – and there’s nothing quite like arriving back at the Serenissima under sail.

January – Brexit blues

After years of trying to work out what Brexit means for yachts, there are still some annoying issues yet to be cleared up, a month into the new regime.

The most vexed question is still VAT. Most of us do have an answer, though not the one we wanted: our boats lost their EU VAT status if they were not moored in a continental port when the transition period ended. That means that in future they can only be temporarily taken to EU countries.

But a minority is still in a potentially expensive limbo. These are the owners who have been away from the UK for more than three years, who may have to pay VAT for a second time if they return with a boat they bought and paid VAT on here.

Continue reading “January – Brexit blues”

New Brexit chaos for yachts

Just when most yacht owners thought they had understood the impact of Brexit, the government has changed the rules on Value Added Tax, with expensive consequences for some.

Last year there were assurances that, after Brexit, a yacht that has been away from the UK on a long term cruise, typically a few years in the Mediterranean, would not have to pay VAT on returning.

Now it looks as if many will have to pay up, even if the boat was bought VAT-paid in the UK before it left – in other words, owners could find themselves paying VAT twice on the same boat. The second charge would be based on its market value at the time of its return.

Needless to say, cruising yacht forums are full of anger and anxiety, though this is not an issue that will get much sympathy anywhere else because yacht owners are not exactly an under privileged minority.

However, many are far from rich, living aboard on tight budgets for much of the year, often after retirement – ‘fulfilling their dreams’ as the yachting magazines love to put it – a far cry from the superyacht owners everybody hates (who in any case probably arrange their affairs so they do not pay European or UK VAT). And while it is very much a minority problem, how many other much more important parts of the economy are being hit by similar administrative chaos 10 weeks ahead of final departure from the EU?

Both the Royal Yachting Association and the Cruising Association are rather desperately seeking clarity from the government. The Treasury’s position seems to be that under EU rules we already charge VAT on a returning yacht after an absence of more than 3 years. It has decided this will continue to be part of the UK rulebook after Brexit.

But until now the practice has been to suspend the rule in many cases, by exempting private yachts that come back after more than 3 years, as long as they are under the same ownership and have had no substantial upgrades (eg a new engine). In these circumstances, the VAT charge has not been levied. The latest indications are that this concession may go.

Just as alarming for many people, the government has changed the point at which the clock starts on the 3 VAT-free years. Last year the RYA was told that a boat currently kept in an EU-27 country such as France or Greece would be treated as if it had left the UK at the point the UK itself finally leaves the EU ie at the end of the transition period on 31 December 2020. That would give a full 3 years to get back.

Now departure has been redefined as the point at which the boat physically left the UK. Any boat already kept abroad for more than 3 years will be liable to VAT if it returns to the UK after 1 January 2021. This led to howls of protest from the RYA and a promise that there would be an extra year – but no clarity about what that meant.

Would it allow a yacht that has already been abroad more than 3 years another year up to the end of 2021 to come home VAT free? Or would it just add one year to the 3 year grace period, so a yacht that has been away 4 years or less will not pay VAT after 1 January next year, but one that has already been away 4 years and a month will pay?

There’s another set of EU rules that make this even more onerous, if the UK imports them into its own post-Brexit system after we leave, as it seems to be doing with the 3 year rule.

Currently, as long as the importer of a yacht is not an EU resident, the yacht can be temporarily imported for up to 18 months without paying VAT. But if the importer is an EU resident, VAT becomes payable on arrival. (Nationality of the importer and registration country of the yacht are irrelevant – it is the country of tax residence of the importer that matters).

In the past, the UK has taken a tough line on this, with no grace period, though there has been at least one exception among EU countries – Greece in the past certainly allowed a month. If the rule is kept by the UK after Brexit, and applied strictly, it would be risky for a UK resident yacht owner to call in for a day at home in a yacht that has been abroad more than 3 years. The VAT would be chargeable immediately.

The rule seems to be aimed at stopping UK residents keeping their yachts VAT-free in tax havens such as the Channel Islands but using them in the UK – an obvious tax loophole if it were left open.

In fact Spring Fever was first registered in Guernsey in 1988. We have the VAT certificate to prove it was paid when the boat was imported into the UK a few years later, a vital document we guard carefully, especially in these new circumstances. With the first owner on the documentation shown as being a Guernsey resident, we may well be asked to prove VAT has been paid.

May – a narrow escape in Venice

Sad news from Venice, where the historic Trabaccolo trading vessel I went to write about for Classic Boat a few years ago has been swamped and damaged by a bad leak. The vessel was saved by the pumps of firefighters who came alongside Il Nuovo Trionfo where she was berthed near the Salute, at the entrance to the Grand Canal. Apparently the boat’s own pumps had failed, though the reasons for the leak in the first place are not clear. The water flooded the engine, and videos show it swilling around at the level of the saloon table top, submerging much equipment.Firefighters alongside with pumps, St Marks Square in the distance

Il Nuovo Trionfo has now been pumped out and towed to a yard for repairs ashore, where she is now. Continue reading “May – a narrow escape in Venice”

March – Spring and fever

Our plans are changing rapidly, just like everybody else’s in all walks of life in Europe. Sailing now has to be a peripheral concern, but we still have to work out what to do with the boat, and indeed whether we can sail it at all this year.

No sooner had we decided to go to southern Brittany rather than our original destination of Spain than the fight against the Covid 19 virus made that new plan difficult and probably impossible. It is only a couple of weeks since we applied for a 12 month mooring for Spring Fever at Arzal on the lovely River Vilaine: not surprising we haven’t heard back, because southern Brittany has a local concentration of infection, and the marina is now preoccupied with far more urgent matters. It has announced a strict plan to protect its staff and customers. Continue reading “March – Spring and fever”

Is your chart relying on an 1860 survey?

Footnote to cruising the Scillies: piloting there is a reminder of the importance of proper Admiralty charts, because they show the age of the surveys on which they are based, unlike any of the proprietary ‘vector’ charts available on chartplotters.

The Scillies is a mixed area from this point of view. Some of the surveys of the area were last done in 1860 – 1904 by lead line, probably from boats carried on naval survey ships and rowed up and down in straight lines quite a long way apart, so rocks could easily be missed. Other parts of the islands were surveyed at a range of different dates in the 20th century. Continue reading “Is your chart relying on an 1860 survey?”

Round the islands

Below is the UKHO large scale chart of the Scillies, with green showing where the bottom is exposed at low spring tides. With careful tide calculations it is straightforward moving between the islands, though you have to be mindful of dangerous rocks scattered around the flats.

The old pilot books for the Scillies, one of which we have, give many complicated bearing lines for finding your way around using pairs of landmarks, which are still very useful to know.

Continue reading “Round the islands”

Three times lucky

The Scillies are beautiful, but they take much effort to visit, even by public transport, because the air and sea links are from Penzance, right at the far end of Cornwall.

I’ve tried to sail to the Scillies half a dozen times, but only managed to arrive after three of those attempts because of bad weather, which makes the islands a rather precarious place to be: there is no all-weather shelter, and it is an area prone to gales and huge swells. Once, the weather forecast was so bad we gave up trying to go west by the time we got to Dartmouth. (I’ve also passed close by the Scillies quite a few times on races without attempting to go there). Continue reading “Three times lucky”

Scillies Vineyard

The island of St Martin’s in the Scillies used to specialise in the growing of spring bulbs and flowers. As the old business has shrunk, a new use has been found for some of the tiny fields with tall hedges that protected the plants from Atlantic storms: England’s remotest vineyard and winery.

The winery

Continue reading “Scillies Vineyard”

Tresco story chiselled in stone

New Grimsby Harbour from Cromwell’s Castle, Tresco to the left, Bryher to the right

On an overgrown, narrow footpath through the bracken near Cromwell’s Castle on Tresco in the Isles of Scilly we came across a modest, well-kept memorial to an extraordinary wartime rescue, invisible through the undergrowth until within a few feet. The inscription tells the story: Continue reading “Tresco story chiselled in stone”

Transadriatica 2019

One of the best sails I’ve had in the Mediterranean or Adriatic: nice breeze that kept the boat flat out much of the way, apart from a couple of hours after the start of the return leg. Only once or twice were we hard pressed, and what’s more the wind magically veered and backed almost on demand, just as we needed it, especially near the course turning point in the Gulf of Trieste. Even as the wind dropped approaching Venice, it was enough to keep us moving at 5 knots.

Spiuma, seen from another competitor as we neared the finish at the entrance to the Venice lagoon

Continue reading “Transadriatica 2019”

Hard Brexit and boat VAT – Treasury response

The Treasury has finally decided that if a yacht is in the European Union on Brexit day, it will not be liable for VAT if it is brought back to the UK later.

As reported before, the Commission said recently that British yachts would lose their EU VAT-paid status unless they were in the EU on the day of a hard Brexit.

If they were in the UK they would no longer have the status of union goods and would be liable for VAT on visiting the EU, so the best they could do would be to apply for temporary importation for up to 18 months. Continue reading “Hard Brexit and boat VAT – Treasury response”